Celtic’s 2-0 victory against Ross County last night certainly had plenty of positive aspects to it while some of the older concerns remain.
Straight from kick off Jeremie Frimpong injected immediate energy into the side. Even before he turned his man and hit the by line – yes, the by-line – to cut the ball back for David Turnbull’s opener his fast-paced start to the game encouraged those around him to do the same. It was a pleasing tempo to witness considering the team had played some two hours plus of a physically and mentally draining Cup Final some 72 hours earlier.
Individually a lot of players showed confidence early doors, hopefully a residual effect from the Quadruple Treble shot in the arm and one we can also build on.
Last night’s opponents of course defeated Celtic in the League Cup. That two-goal deficit was rock bottom for many of the support as we saw from the subsequent protestations, but Celtic’s form didn’t fall off a cliff it had been a slow roll down a hill.
The decline started with worrying signs in defending set pieces and giving cheap foul away all the way back to the first game of the season.
Even in that 5-1 season opener to Saturday’s opponents Hamilton we were poor is transition and entirely lost when the opposition had the ball. Slowly but surely, this continued to unravel with heavy European defeats and lacklustre performances against domestic rivals slowly eating away at the team’s confidence. It has taken time, longer than expected, to start a gradual recovery.
But last night was a fourth game where Celtic have emerged from battle victorious and while the slump to the rock bottom of defeat to ross County in the Cup was a slow decline, so the rise back to the summit cannot be expected to be manoeuvred with a magical return to form. That too is likely to be a gradual process and in recent weeks there have been signs we’re getting there slowly but surely.
The first half was pleasing and the pressing from the front, to isolate any precision from Ross County passing out from the back for Ross Stewart to get them up the park, showed tactical lessons from the Dingwall side’s last visit had been learned. The goal Celtic scored was well worked and despite only being a solitary strike to the good, the half-time break was reached without further impact on the scoreline but with a solid performance banked.
In the second half the pace did slow down and the ideas reduced somewhat but after the exertions of Sunday I can certainly forgive them that. Yet even in the process of tiring Celtic had opportunities, and it was refreshing to see Neil Lennon use the substitutions in a timely manner to rest weary limbs and minds ahead of a tightly packed Christmas schedule whilst also ensuring we kept up the high press that required energy to stop County ever being a real threat.
Celtic’s formation seemed to cause County difficulties and it was certainly pleasing to see both Griffiths and Eddy return as a two-pronged attack. The partnership looked rusty but it’s been in cold storage for some time, yet there were clear indications, as they attempted to link, that there should be a persistence in this approach if Celtic wish to unsettle Scottish defences in the second half of the season.
Before Griffiths headed Celtic’s second the striker spurned two great opportunities to score, whilst Edouard had one laid in a plate by Turnbull and Mikey Johnston also supplied a later opportunity for Ntcham, where a half decent connection would more than have tested the goalkeeper.
Celtic had a game plan last night and it worked. That was a positive. What remained concerning that we remain reliant on individuals to take it upon themselves, rather than training ground engrained patterns of play to break down defences.
There was still the sight of ludicrous shots from distance from the usual suspects, yet a lack of movement and creation of space from the strikers played a part in forcing players down that route. For a patient and probing tactical approach the strikers need to create space but again that will come as the partnership beds in.
Much of the continued concern comes from a defence that has conceded 33 goals in 14 games. The admittance from the manager that the main cause of the porousness, namely set pieces, cannot be fully addressed due to the limited time available between games is a further worry. Yet last night we at least tried to stop the supply by way of a high press, though a better side will undoubtedly test us more in that regard.
Much of the current anxiety comes from the prospect of heading to Ibrox on January 2nd rather than the performance last night. As a support we are reflecting our angst at the consistency of performance from our rivals onto our own team. So much so that even when we win, as we did last night, we still seem anxious as the Derby fixture comes into sight.
Instead, Celtic need to focus on the hurdles ahead and the continued incremental improvements that has seen us go from losing to Ross County to defeating Lille, Kilmarnock, Hearts and the same side that turned us over in the Cup.
It may not be Invincible form but it sure as hell is a step in the right direction. Two further wins at Accies and at home to Dundee United will further rebuild confidence before we head into a Glasgow Derby. There may even be scope for the landscape to change and points difference to shorten prior to that encounter. St Mirren showed the dragon we’ve created in our minds may not be as big and powerful as we’ve allowed our panic to portray it.
The team that played Ross County last night was far better than the one that lost to the same opponent only a few weeks previous, the performance was an improvement, the chances created and scored far more impressive and a clean sheet the second on the trot in a league campaign with too few from a much-maligned defence was certainly something to cling to.
It’s time then to focus on the positives and encourage further improvement. It’s not a time for pencils up the nose and pants on head panic. How can we expect our players to stay calm, focussed and put one foot in front of the other while we’re obsessed by an opponent, one we have no control over?
At this moment in time Celtic are taking care of business whilst in previous weeks that was not the case. The next game is Hamilton on Boxing Day, concerns around Ibrox can wait.